Holly Jolly Psychology: The Science Behind Christmas Spirit

Every year, people around the world decorate their homes, light their fireplaces and begin preparing presents for the holiday season. With candles lit, food cooked and family gathered, Christmas spirit begins to take hold, and those who don’t celebrate Christmas have holiday spirit of their own. But what exactly is holiday spirit, and how valid is its existence?

In 2007, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing found that Christmas spirit can be measured through a combination of aspects like how much someone spends on gifts or how much charity work is done leading up to and during the holidays.

Junior Emma Lam, however, thinks of Christmas spirit as more of a sigh of relief.

“Christmas spirit is more like after that feeling of depression and sadness from finals and everything,” Lam said. “I just feel free. Christmas spirit is kind of my happiness explosion, I guess.”

Like Lam, senior Oeishi Banerjee considers Christmas to be a significant part of her life because her workload is lightened.

“Teachers ease up on schoolwork right before [the holiday break] so that’s a huge plus,” Banerjee said. “At least for me, I know that Christmas isn’t gonna be full of college apps.”

In addition to being a relief from the stress that school life brings, Christmas spirit can also originate from the anticipation of certain events like spending time around friends and family.

“It’s sort of the time when me and my family get a lot closer because work, work, work is always the thing,” Banerjee said. “Christmas lets me put aside time for them.”

Mass Materialism

However, the gift-giving commonly associated with Christmas can give way to a rise in materialism, which has been known to lead to a slew of negative effects, like spending problems and lower levels of well-being, Tim Kasser, PhD told American Psychology Association in late 2014.

“Psychologist Ken Sheldon and I co-authored a study that found that to the extent people focused their holiday season around materialistic aims like spending and receiving, the less they were focused on spiritual aims,” Kasser said. “We also found that people reported ‘merrier’ Christmases when spirituality was a large part of their holiday, but reported lower Christmas well-being to the extent that the holiday was dominated by materialistic aspects.”

Despite the negative effects of materialism, most, like Lam, feel that gift-giving is a positive thing that makes the anticipation leading up to the holidays worth it.

“Holiday spirit is more like ‘ooh, I wonder what I’m gonna get for Christmas, what am I going to make this year, should I make something, what should I get my sister,’” Lam said.

Others, like sophomore Leslie Ligier, regard gift-giving as the side dish, rather than the main course.

“[Christmas spirit is] just getting together with family and friends and I think that’s the most important part,” Ligier said. “Yeah, gifts are a part of it, but that’s not really the main picture.”

Stress of finals

Every year, the MVHS Leadership council dedicates a week to hosting fun holiday-themed events and dress-up days. However, the upcoming final exams may have put a damper on students’ holiday spirit, as Leadership saw a decrease in students participating in dress-up days and events.

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Holiday decorations and a banner for Bring Your Own Mug Day adorn the rally court. MV Leadership has maintained a tradition of hosting holiday-themed events two weeks before the winter finals. Photo by Andrea Perng

Ligier, who is a member of Leadership, agrees.

“I think [holiday spirit] is less widespread in high school, because since it’s a few weeks before finals where you should start getting into the Christmas spirit, it’s not as spirited around here,” Ligier said. “I know during holiday week, a lot of people aren’t participating in a lot of events, so it’s like they should, but they have to study for finals which makes sense.”

Ligier’s observations are not entirely unfounded. On the last day of the holiday week, even though students were meant to come to school wearing “holiday hats”, students actually wearing holiday-themed hats were sparse, with many that claimed that they hadn’t known about the event in the first place.

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Students line up with mugs for Bring Your Own Mug Day as part of the holiday week festivities. Photo by Andrea Perng

But it’s not as if there aren’t any students that have no holiday spirit either: at Bring Your Own Mug Day, there was a sizable amount of people in the rally court as members of Leadership poured hot chocolate into mugs. When events like BYOM Day came about, the rally court was lit up with laughter and smiles as students reveled in holiday cheer. And dress-up days didn’t go ignored either– during ugly sweater day, one would notice students and teachers alike wearing red and green argyle sweaters, poking fun at their peers’ holiday outfits.

And when finals are fast approaching and stress takes hold, maybe that’s the way things should be.